The woman at the Spanish consulate was adamant: To take a shotgun into her country to hunt rabbits we'd need full translations of our U.S. hunting licenses, stamped and approved, plus documented translations of all pertinent gun registrations.
So we raced around town doing her complex bidding, went to the consulate to shell out $60 for her stamped blessings, and of course that was the last time anyone ever asked for any of it. The Spanish Guardia Civil had never heard of such a thing.
"You'll need a separate, locking case for each shotgun, too," warned the agent at U.S. Air, speaking for her counterpart at Iberia, which was handling overseas legs of the trip. "When you check in at New York, you'll unlock the cases to show the guns are unloaded. Then the pilot takes the keys and puts them in his pocket. You don't get them back until you get to Seville."
So we ran out and spent another bundle on an airline-approved case. In New York, the Iberia agent stifled a yawn, said, "Guns?" and shipped the cases through without even a glance at the locks.
So it goes. Anyone who'd cross the ocean to hunt lowly rabbits in the hottest place in Europe in the middle of July probably ought to expect hassles and surprises, anyway. And money and time aren't everything, are they? Please don't answer that.
The good news is the rabbits are still plentiful, just as we remembered them on the 200-acre farm Washingtonian Manuel Munoz-Carrasco bought 15 years ago in the white-hot heart of Andalucia, where he grew up.
So abundant are cottontails in the foothills of the Sierra de Aracena, in fact, that the Spanish government offers a special, midsummer hunting season to keep them from eating farmers out of house and home by autumn.
The natural reaction of hunters to information like that is to assume it's wild-game madness. I'm reminded of a guy who learned of a county in North Carolina where deer were so thick, the season limit was 15 per person. He scheduled a week's hunt, removed all the back seats from his van and strapped a canoe on top to carry all the deer that wouldn't fit inside. So how many deer did he bring home? Zero, mate. None.
It would be hard, however, to get skunked on rabbits in Andalucia, I knew from happy previous experience. The land is poor enough that no one farms intensively, eschewing the costly herbicides and pesticides that have decimated rabbit populations in the United States.
Meantime, the chest-high manchas of thick, resinous, sweet-smelling brush alongside straggly rows of cultivated grain give bunnies all they need: Thick cover to hide in in the heat of the day; grain to munch on in the dark of night.
So bountiful are bunnies that rabbit hunting here is like goose gunning on Maryland's Eastern Shore, drawing city dwellers from hundreds of miles away to partake of managed private hunts on clubs measuring thousands of acres.
Munoz's operation is humbler -- worn pathways of dusty, hard, parched red clay to stalk along toward brushpiles and field edges that habitually hold rabbits and three avid little dogs to help start the game running during the middle of the day.
On Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays -- designated hunting days under stringent new government conservation laws -- the drill is simple.
You rise at dawn and head alone for your favorite paths. Mine generally took me down the mostly dry riverbed, where rabbits were often seen darting off 100 yards ahead, well out of range, spooked by my advance.
"It's hard this year," said Munoz, "because everything is so dry. You're never quiet enough."
The wind was often a factor, blowing in dry and dusty across the Straits of Gibraltar from the Sahara in Africa. You wanted that wind in your face, carrying noise and scent away from feeding bunnies ahead.
Bit by bit, patterns emerged of where the game was likely to be. You found your steps automatically slowing at the good spots, eyes darting more keenly from feet, to avoid breaking the crispest sticks and leaves, to 40 yards ahead for the sight of fleeing tails.
At the end of a two-hour trek, you could count on your fingers the number of decent opportunities, and half of them you'd blown.
At noon we'd go in a group, bringing the dogs, Chispa, Lilly and Caneli, to root around in the brushpiles, sending what rabbits they encountered bounding out into the searing sunshine. Midafternoon was good for another seething-hot round of brush-busting with the mutts, then in evenings, after siesta, we'd head out for another bout of solo stalking.
I'd like to tell you it was gangbusters, shooting till your arms fell off, but in truth at the end of a hard day if you'd put three or four bunnies in the pouch, you'd done well.
The nightly celebration on the back veranda was simple enough -- rabbit stew in a bubbling broth of olive oil, white wine, garlic, onions, fresh tomatoes and peppers from the garden, and an ice-cold watermelon to top it off.
In the distance, sunset faded away over a hilly horizon marred by just one, distant electric light. The brightest things in sight were the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Pleiades, Venus. And look! Here comes the moon.
"You went all the way to Spain to hunt rabbits?" marveled the U.S. Customs agent at New York, checking in the guns back at JFK.
"Sort of," I said. "It's hard to explain. You'd have to be there to understand."